October 28, 2013

Russia’s last Empress on Marriage and Family Life

“Marriage is a divine rite. It was part of God’s design when He created man. It is the closest and the most holy union on earth.”

“Our love for each other may be sincere and deep on sunny days, but it is never as strong as on days of suffering and sorrow, when all the previously hidden richness of the soul is revealed.”

-Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918)

Every person has moments in his or her life when he or she reads or hears something which leaves an indelible, lifelong impression on their soul. Whatever the extraordinary idea or concept may be, and whatever the circumstances in which the inspiration touches the person, such a defining encounter always has the same effect:  to awaken the person’s consciousness to something of which it had previously been unaware, to kindle within them a flame of understanding, or to lift a veil and open their eyes to a new plane previously unseen.

One such experience in my own life was when I first encountered Empress Alexandra’s notes on Christian marriage and family life. I believe these writings could bring about a restoration and revitalization of the practicing and living out of the sacramental vocation of authentic, holy matrimony to which most Christian men and women are called. Were every Christian husband and wife to prayerfully read and endeavor to live by the Empress’ observations, I can only imagine the joy that would spread through the Churches and into the world, and how the mistrust, fear, misery and alienation – all tools of the Evil One- present today in so many suffering or broken families would recede.

A signed photograph of the Empress dating to 1899. You might be surprised to see her signature in English, but the Empress spoke English as her first language, raised as she was at her grandmother Queen Victoria's court.

A signed photograph of the young Empress dating to 1899. You might be surprised to see her signature in English, but the Empress spoke English as her first language, as she was raised at her grandmother Queen Victoria’s court.

Seldom before or since reading Empress Alexandra’s writings have I been so moved by the gentle, noble spirit of loving selflessness and devotion to which she calls all to aspire, the holiness and transformation in Christ which she insists must be the normative experience and ontological purpose of Christian matrimony.

I initially came across this extraordinary article some months ago by way of its republished link on Pravmir (Orthodoxy and the World), a superb website maintained in English by the Russian Orthodox Church. I cannot hope to describe the utter amazement and spiritual joy which touched me as I read the Empress’ reflections on these twin subjects of crucial importance to thoughtful Christians across the world at this time. Nor can I emphasize enough my realization that there is a profoundly necessary wisdom in her words which the world needs to hear and read now, perhaps more than ever before in the history of mankind.

I can only wonder in awe at what a wonderful, godly and extraordinary marriage Nicholas II and Alexandra so clearly lived, and pray that I may someday be such a loving husband as the Emperor was for his wife, and blessed with so wonderful a wife as was the Empress for her husband.

 

This is the official engagement portrait of the young Nicholas and Alix, who, once chrismated into the Orthodox Church, took the name Alexandra. Her family and friends continued to call her "Alix" or "Alicky", and her husband reserved for her the pet name "Sunny".

This is the official engagement portrait of the young Nicholas and Alix, who, once chrismated into the Orthodox Church, took the name Alexandra. Her family and friends continued to call her “Alix” or “Alicky”, and her husband reserved for her the pet name “Sunny”.

One of the official portraits of the young couple after their April 1894 engagement. Their marriage is one of history's greatest love stories.

One of the official portraits of the young couple after their April 1894 engagement. The couple wrote each other letters every day, no matter if they were apart or in the same place. Their marriage is one of history’s greatest love stories.

As the original article from Baltimore’s Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church notes, the Empress’ words carry a unique weight for Christians, for she was not only a crowned Orthodox monarch who ruled alongside her husband over one-fourth of the world’s landmass at the head of its largest contiguous land empire, but she became, along with her entire family who suffered great privations and ultimately, execution at the hands of a Bolshevik killing squad, a New Martyr of the Orthodox Church. That such a royal martyr should also serve as an ideal an emblem and example of godly Christian marriage makes her words all the more compelling:

“There are many religious treatises to be found on monasticism, but there are too few books dedicated to acquainting the contemporary reader with the Christian concept of matrimony.  And yet the majority of Christians choose the path of the wedded state, called by the Holy Fathers “the harbor of chastity.”

However, our life is usually spent in worry over obtaining one’s daily bread, and the mutual limitations and sinfulness of the spouses often leaves a noticeable trace on the relations between husband and wife. Gradually the feelings which had made the young lovers the happiest people on earth begin to fade; the light of sacrifice and chivalry begins to dim; daily routine makes communion between the spouses lackluster. The experience of the crowned royals Nicholas and Alexandra was obviously quite different. Innate nobility, purity of feelings and intentions were united with a well thought out effort to maintain and guard the union which truly became a model for their subjects.

When reading books, Empress Alexandra wrote out excerpts which accorded most fully with her own experience of marriage. The inner power of these notes lies in the virtuous way of life of the pious Empress, who was totally dedicated to the ideal of the family. It is for this reason that these excerpts reflect calmness, total sincerity, and celestial beauty. In our times, when the very basic human concepts of duty, honor, conscience, responsibility, and faithfulness are questioned and even mocked, the reading of these notes becomes a real spiritual event. Counsels, warnings to the spouses, thoughts on true and false love, reflections on the relations between close relatives, testimony concerning the definitive significance of the home atmosphere in determining a child’s nature – such is the circle of ethical problems with which the Empress is concerned.

The Empress helps us take a fresh look at the divine establishment of marriage and to value this gift in the light of Christian love.”

Nicholas II and Alexandra married on November 14/26, 1894 in the Grand Church (Imperial chapel) of the Winter Palace at St Petersburg.

Nicholas II and Alexandra married on November 14/26, 1894 in the Grand Church (Imperial chapel) of the Winter Palace at St Petersburg.

More than any other saints or historical figures, the Royal New Martyrs Nicholas and Alexandra embody the Christian mariage idéal, one born of love, patience and deep affection, and grounded in numerous expressions of kindness and trust. The lightening strength and joy of their life together rested in their abiding and ever-deepening friendship, while the foundation of their selfless devotion to each other was the spiritual rock of their shared piety and profound reverence for the Orthodox Christian faith.

The imperial couple’s ever-growing faith and friendship inspired them to constant, mutual displays of affection and self-sacrifice for each other, culminating in a holy love where both spouses saw reflected in the other  the image of God, and the treasured companion in their shared journey to salvation. As the Empress writes, with the couple trusting in God’s providence to guide them in all things,

“. . . patience and love overcome everything, and two lives unite into one – a nobler, stronger, fuller, richer one, and this life will continue in peace and tranquility. . . In this manner two lives will unite into a single life, and in such a marriage each other’s thoughts, desires, feelings, joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain will be shared.”

Nicholas II and Alexandra 2

The Empress’ profoundly orthodox Christian spiritual formation and education breathes through each sentence like a quiet, steady spirit, her soul acting in harmony with her intellectual expression of mind. Given Alexandra’s obvious gifts as a talented writer and poet, even aside from the profound contents of her writing, every sentence she writes is eminently quotable for its literary style and beauty, worth jotting into a journal or notebook and pondering with your spouse or hopeful spouse.

Even from a non-Orthodox or a secular perspective, numerous observations in this wonderful collection of the Empress’ thoughts read like more refined and thoughtful versions of the bits of advice for husbands and wives which many Christian pastors and non-Christian self-help gurus offer today. Here are just four brief examples:

On the importance of constantly showing each other tender and loving attention: “Another secret of bliss in married life is attention to each other. The husband and wife should constantly show signs of the most tender attention and love for each other. Happiness in life is made up of individual moments, of small pleasures – a kiss, a smile, a kind glance, a heartfelt compliment, and countless small but kind thoughts and sincere feelings. Love also needs its daily bread.”

On the need for exercising constant selflessness, restraint and patience: “The main requisite in a family is unselfish love. Each spouse should forget his own ego and dedicate himself to the other person. Each one should blame himself and not the other person when something goes wrong. One needs to possess restraint and patience, since impatience can spoil everything. A harsh word can delay the merging of the spouses’ souls for months. There should be a desire on both sides to make the marriage a happy one and to overcome everything that stands in the way of such a goal. The strongest love has the greatest need of daily fortification. Most unforgivable of all is precisely rudeness in one’s own home, towards those whom we love.”

On the crucial role forgiveness plays in keeping and restoring marital peace: “You should fear the least sign of incipient disobedience or alienation. Instead of acting in a restrained manner, the husband or the wife says an ill-advised or careless word, and suddenly a small crack appears between these two hearts that up to now have been one whole, and this crack widens and widens until the spouses find themselves torn apart forever. Did you say something thoughtless? Ask forgiveness immediately. Did a misunderstanding arise between you? It does not matter whose fault it was, but do not allow it to stand between you even for an hour.”

On avoiding fighting and putting the blame on each other: “Refrain from quarreling. Do not go to sleep with a feeling of anger in your heart. There should be no place for pride in family life. You should never coddle your feeling of injured pride in scrupulously trying to determine precisely who has to ask forgiveness. Those who love truly never engage in such casuistry, but are always ready to give in and apologize.”

Here, Empress Alexandra (far left) sits with her husband (standing next to her) and her grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901, r. 1837-1901) on one of the Imperial couple's many visits to England. To Queen Victoria's left, standing beside her is her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (r. 1901-1910).

Here, Empress Alexandra (far left) sits with her husband (standing next to her) and her grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901, r. 1837-1901) on one of the Imperial couple’s many visits to England. To Queen Victoria’s left, standing beside her is her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (r. 1901-1910). I am not sure which of the Grand Duchesses is the infant here, but plausibly it could be Olga, the eldest, as there are no other babies present.

As I read each line of the Empress’ excerpts, I became more and more aware that I was reading not only the incredibly astute and self-aware observations of a very well-educated Empress, but also, the prayerful revelations of a living Saint. How can one read words such as these, and not know, not discern as clear as the sun rises in the morning sky, that this Empress was a profoundly holy woman whose life – along with that of her husband – radiated with an inner nobility and long-suffering selflessness borne by the grace of God?

This portrait by Baketti depicts the presentation of the crowned Emperor and Empress to the people for their acclamation as sovereign monarch and consort of the Russian Empire. While Peter I had transferred the imperial capital to St Petersburg, all coronations were held, by tradition, in the ancient Uspenskiy Sobor (Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary) in the Moscow Kremlin. To Alexandra's right, slightly behind the imperial couple on the dais, is Nicholas mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, sister of Alexandra, the Princess of Wales and future Queen consort of the United Kingdom.

Coronation Portrait, May 1896: This portrait by Baketti depicts the presentation of the crowned Emperor and Empress to the people for their acclamation as sovereigns of the Russian Empire. While Peter I had transferred the imperial capital to St Petersburg, all coronations were held, by tradition, in the ancient Uspenskiy Sobor (Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary) in the Moscow Kremlin. To Alexandra’s right, slightly behind the imperial couple on the dais, is Nicholas mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, sister of Alexandra, then the Princess of Wales and future Queen consort of the United Kingdom.

This sketch shows the moment at their joint coronation in which Nicholas II, already crowned with Catherine II's Great Imperial Crown, moves forward to place the smaller consort's crown on his wife's head. Moments before this scene, the Emperor would have briefly lifted off the crown which he had just placed on his head, and touched it to his wife's forehead, symbolically joining her to his exercise of the monarchical power entrusted to him by God.

This sketch shows the moment at their joint coronation in which Nicholas II, already crowned with Catherine II’s Great Imperial Crown, moves forward to place the smaller consort’s crown on his wife’s head. Moments before this scene, the Emperor would have briefly lifted off the crown which he had just placed on his head, and touched it to his wife’s forehead, symbolically joining her to his exercise of the monarchical power entrusted to him by God.

Here are several more beautiful observations which the Empress has left for all generations to read.

The Empress writes here on the subject of a husband’s constant fidelity. May all men strive to follow such wise counsel, which comes from a wife whose husband adored her to the very depth of his being:

“When the beauty of the face fades, the shining of the eyes dims, and with age come wrinkles, or when illnesses, sorrows, and cares leave their traces and scars, the love of a faithful husband should remain just as deep and sincere as before. There are no measurements on earth that are capable of measuring the depth of Christ’s love for His Church, and not a single mortal can love with the same depth of feeling, but nevertheless each husband must do it to the extent that such love can be recreated on earth. No sacrifice will appear too great to him for the sake of his beloved.”

On the mutual care and devotion which a husband and wife should have for each other, especially during times of trial and difficulties, the Empress offers this advice:

“Both the husband and the wife should give to each other the best in each of them. . . Heavy work, difficulties, cares, self-sacrifice, and even misfortune lose their acuteness, bleakness, and severity when they are softened by tender love, just as cold, bare, and rugged cliffs become beautiful when wild vines entwine them with their green garlands, and exquisite flowers fill all their cracks and crevices.”

On how to create and sustain a peaceful, loving home, which is the joint responsibility of the entire family, but especially the mother and father, Alexandra notes that

“Each home has its own trials, but peace reigns in a truly loving home and cannot be upset by any worldly tempests. The home is a place of warmth and tenderness. At home one should speak only with love. Such a house can nurture only beauty and gentleness of character. One of the misfortunes of our times is that quiet family evenings are being pushed out by business, amusements, a whirling social life.”

The Empress comments extensively on the holy work of raising children in a loving, warm home. Note especially the last two sentences, and this, more than anything else, perhaps encapsulates the Emperor and Empress’ view of themselves: their roles as Emperor and Empress of Russia were secondary in importance to that of father and mother to their beloved children:

“It is a great art to live together, loving each other tenderly. This must begin with the parents. Each home is like its creators. Refined natures produce a refined home, while a coarse person creates a coarse home.”

“Each wonderful thought that comes into a child’s mind afterwards strengthens and ennobles his character. Our bodies age against our will, but why should our souls not remain forever young? It is simply criminal to suppress a child’s joy and force children to be gloomy and full of self-importance. Very soon life’s problems will lie upon their shoulders. Very soon life will bring them anxieties, cares, difficulties, and the burden of responsibility. So let them remain young and carefree as long as possible. Their childhood should be filled as much as possible with joy, light, and merry games.”

“Parents should not be too embarrassed to play and horse around with their children. Perhaps in those moments they are closer to God than when they are engaged in what seems to them to be important work.”

I will describe what she writes no further, but I simply urge you to read these incredible words for yourself, and then, if you are so moved, as I was, to then share them with as many people as you are able. Were every Christian married couple in the world to follow the Empress’ exhortations here, I am convinced that adultery, abuse, and painful divorces would fade from among Christians.

Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna


9 Responses to Russia’s last Empress on Marriage and Family Life

  1. eDubs says:

    Very nice article. Alexandra was in many ways a simple woman living in extraordinary complex times. When setting aside her noble failures as an Empress we are able to see that she had, within her, the qualities of a remarkable woman.

    Regarding the confusion in your one photo caption the baby is indeed Olga Nikolaevna. This photo was taking during a family visit to England in 1896, the last time Alexandra would ever see her grandmother the Queen.

  2. Jason says:

    What book are these quotes from?

    • A . Seredenco says:

      From book ”Give Love” excerpts from Empress’s diaries which was published in Russian and possibly in English. I was deeply touched by this book. Great wisdom and guidance for any family!

  3. Kevin says:

    Ryan, thank you very much for sharing this endearing portrait. I’m shaking…

  4. digpig says:

    One name has to be mentioned – Rasputin.

  5. Karen Darwin says:

    Obviously their marriage was a great success but Alexandra influenced her husband in how to rule where was her compassion for the poor.?

  6. She had so much compassion for the poor and as for Rasputin…you need to read up…. he was praying fro her son and why is it we cannot admire her and her incredible character? Who knows what we all would do in her shoes. Besides she is a Saint now so God has spoken on her holiness. In a word she is and was amazing. Wonderful article!

  7. Karen Darwin says:

    I still stand by what I previously wrote and I HAVE READ UP MANY TIMES it is tragic that if only she had encouraged Nicholas to make reforms then what happened may never have happened

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